“Girls Particularly Cautioned”: Separate Spheres for the Status Quo

Amanda Marcotte

Sexism and misogyny are something that women in particular should not be exposed to, as if boys and men were somehow better equipped to handle the message. If anything, I'd argue the opposite.

Sometimes you see something that makes you run to calendar
to make sure that we still live in the 21st century.  No, not the rantings and ravings of
fundamentalist Christians who want women to relinquish their shoes and their
birth control pills.  That they want to
roll the clock back surprises no one.  Rather, it’s when you see something like this disclaimer at the bottom of a New York
Times movie review.

"17 Again" is rated PG-13 (Parents
strongly cautioned). Girls are particularly cautioned.

Yes. Girls are
particularly
cautioned. Why?  Does
the reviewer think that young women have a delicate constitution that prevents
them from being able to handle juvenile sex jokes of the sort you find in a
PG-13 movie?  Does she assume that girls
have too much going on to waste their time with the stupidest movie cliché
ever–the magical-event-causes-boring-adult-to-become-a-teenager storyline?  Or is it that girls will be so soaked in
hormones after watching Zac Efron for 90 minutes that they will be unable to
conduct themselves like proper young ladies afterwards? It’s hard to say, but
it seems that the sexism is what really offends Manohla Dargis.  She singles it out as particularly noxious in
this film:

Given the story’s obnoxious
implications – sex, meaning girls, can ruin your life – it’s no surprise that
Scarlet doesn’t get the chance to revisit her past and tell her boyfriend to
put on a condom.

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Even assuming that Dargis was being cheeky when she said
that girls were particularly
cautioned, I have to ask, why the double standard?

My curiosity piqued, I dropped the $7 (who knew it cost that
much to see a matinee now?) to see "17 Again" and find out if it was just as
full of sexist humor as the review implied. 
What I found was less "Superbad" with more misogyny and more something
that seemed derived from an abstinence-only text, but with injected with some
pseudo-hip humor in order to make it seem relevant.  It’s a world in which our protagonist makes impassioned speeches about the
importance of abstinence, which makes all the girls love him (instead of tuning
him out just as they mostly tune out abstinence-only messages coming from
adults).  He also delivers a stern
lecture about "respecting yourself" to young women who commit the sin of openly
displaying sexual desire, because apparently you can have sexual desire or you
can be treated like a human being who deserves basic respect, but not both.

We’ve definitely seen this movie before. Spout
lists many of the dozens of movies where adults become teenagers, either by
swapping bodies or regression to their younger selves.
  In this variation, the hero Michael is an adult
pushing 40 and hating his life, which he feels was ruined when he gave up a
chance on a basketball scholarship and college to marry his pregnant girlfriend
at the age of 17. As
Jill at Amplify said
, the movie doesn’t acknowledge any middle ground where
someone can have sex without it turning into a life-altering disaster.  Not that condoms are never mentioned.  They are, in a scene where all the girls
reject them as foul and unromantic as the school bully hoards them all for
himself.  The message is clear–only bad
people use condoms to have sex for pleasure. 
In fact, during Efron’s impassioned pro-abstinence speech, he openly
states that you should wait not just for marriage for sex, but until you are
ready to make a baby that very first time.

Like most abstinence-only materials, the movie is
incoherent.  On one hand, we’re supposed
to cheer Michael’s successful attempts at preserving his teenage daughter’s
virginity, on the grounds that she needs to go to college (as if these two
goals are mutually exclusive).  But most
of the movie is about how the protagonist and his wife made the best decision
of their lives in having unprotected sex and forgoing college for marriage
before they could vote.  It’s not
surprising.  Most abstinence-only
programs put nominal effort in highlighting the value of avoiding pregnancy in
your adolescence, but as the Bristol Palin situation demonstrated, the
anti-choice right lines right up to cheer for teenagers who choose pregnancy
and marriage over higher education.

As you can imagine when dealing with a movie pushing right
wing attitudes about sex, sexism comes right along. Dargis was right about the
misogyny.  Even though Leslie Mann’s
character comes across as much less a harpy as she did in "Knocked Up"  (she has to, or we can’t root for their happy
ending), the rest of the movie bundles up some ugly assumptions about
women.  There are good girls (who are
virgins or happy teenage mothers) and every other woman is a horror show, a
slut and a monster all rolled into one. 
Michael’s female coworkers are all bimbos who get promoted over him,
because of their sluttiness.  The wife’s
friend is a slut who has the crazy idea that divorced women should feel free to
date, even if they have children.  And of course, you have the "slutty" teenage
girls who pursue young men, who are presumed to be broken and stupid
besides.  And even though we’re told that
Michael’s daughter is smart and has a future, we see no evidence of this, and
only know that she’s a bad girl with bad taste in men, and she’s only redeemed
by keeping her cherry intact.  Even then,
her whole performance of sexual desire is treated as grotesque in and of
itself, which fits with the rest of the film’s horror at assertive female
sexuality.

But I must take issue with Dargis’s pronouncement that girls
particularly are cautioned.  Boys need
this kind of vicious stereotyping of women and shaming of female sexual desire
even less than girls do.  If they’re
straight, they’re going to have to deal with female sexuality without thinking
it turns women into monsters, at least if they want healthy relationships.  In this movie, it seems the only way a woman
can have sex and be respectable afterwards is if she gets pregnant right away.

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